Lisa Graumlich
Dean Lisa J. Graumlich, Mary Laird Wood Professor and inaugural dean of the UW College of the Environment.

After serving as the inaugural dean of the College of the Environment, Lisa Graumlich will step down at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Graumlich first joined the University of Washington in the 1980s as a graduate student in what is now the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, returning to her alma mater to unite earth sciences units and departments within the University of Washington to form the biggest College of its kind in the nation.

Graumlich reflects on the past 11 years, and discusses her plans for post-deanhood (spoiler alert: it’s not retirement!)

Please share a memory, thought, or well-wishes on Lisa’s Kudoboard!

You are the inaugural dean of the College of the Environment. What made you decide to take on such a huge role?

This is truly the job of my dreams, and it goes back to the 1980s when I was a graduate student in the then College of Forest Resources here at UW. I was interested, way back then, in climate change as a physical science question, but also climate change as an issue in terms of its impact on not only mountains and forests of the west, but also its impact on livelihoods. What that meant was that I didn’t fit into any type of box of what a typical graduate student looked like or the questions they asked. It was absolutely glorious as a graduate student to be boundless. I took classes in what was then geology, atmospheric sciences, the Center for Quantitative Studies, I got to know fisheries biologists. I took courses in civil engineering and others all over this campus. It prepared me for a really rewarding and robust career looking at climate change and its impacts with one foot in fundamental science and another foot in using this information to solve problems. The ability to do that with the depth and rigor that we have at UW was really phenomenal. Many decades later, I heard about UW forming a new College with what I have to say were all my favorite parts of UW all coming together. I recognized the power that integration had for my own work, and the potential power that it had for making learning for undergraduate and graduate students more effective, and collaboration possibilities for faculty more rich. I wanted to be a part of that. In applying for the deanship, I had never wanted a job so deeply because it felt, to me, like an opportunity to give back to an institution that had formed me.

How has environmental science changed since you became dean?

What I’ve witnessed in the past decade is a greater and greater recognition of the degree to which we need to cross boundaries. We need to cross boundaries between disciplines, we need to cross boundaries between natural sciences and social sciences, and most importantly, we need to cross boundaries between the world of the University and the world of all the people that use environmental science to solve problems in the real world to live a healthy life in their communities. I’ve recognized that our College embraces that, and they don’t necessarily think about cross-disciplinarity as a problem to be solved…they just do it. I particularly applaud our early career faculty members who work in ways that are less conventional and take risks, all while possessing the communication skills that allow their scholarship to be understood and embraced by a wide variety of communities. They are truly inspirational in the way in which they are taking the amazing environmental science that we do and making sure that it has a life both in the best of the best of our peer-reviewed publications and in the way it can be used.

What accomplishments as dean are you most proud of?

Early on, we recognized the tremendous strength we had in polar research. We also recognized that across the entire campus, there was a lot of interest particularly in the Arctic and the really rapid climate change that was occurring there and the impacts on sea level rise on communities. We put together the first of our interdisciplinary initiatives called the Future of Ice, and we hired faculty, made partnerships with our colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences, and accelerated and daylighted the incredible work we’re doing in this area. This formed the basis on which other interdisciplinary initiatives took place like the Freshwater Initiative, and eventually culminated in standing up EarthLab as an environmental institute that had been part of the initial vision in 2009 when the College was formed. The ability to recognize and leverage strengths and do so with our partners in other units, all to make the science that much more robust and meaningful to end users — to truly have an impact — is something I am truly proud of. 

You have always been an advocate for Science Communication. What value did you see in that?

In the 1980s, Jane Lubchenco, one of our nation’s foremost marine scientists and leaders, challenged me to answer, “What difference does my science make?” The question really stopped me cold because she has a very sincere yet fierce way of asking us to rise to challenges that we hadn’t perhaps thought we were going to rise to that day. I realized that for the kind of science I was engaged in, if it just sat in peer-reviewed journals, it wasn’t going to matter. That started a personal journey for me in seeking to become more and more effective in communicating my science. When I arrived as dean, many other people had been asked this same question by Jane. There was a community here that had been quietly and individually honing those kinds of skills. Like everything else in this College, if we all work together, we can actually support each other in this work, up our skillset, take on more audacious goals and train the next generation to do this kind of work. I’m very proud of the fact that working with the Marketing and Communications team in the College, we’ve trained around 500 faculty, staff and students in science communication strategies, and we have supported people in ensuring that their work goes out into the world in the way they see as most useful. For some people and some kinds of scholarship, it’s something that needs to be communicated to rotary clubs and community groups. For other people, it needs to be an op-ed in the Washington Post. For others, it needs to be congressional testimony. We do it all, and we embrace it all. It’s a way in which this tremendous diversity in the kind of work we do and where that lands is supported by the Dean’s Office and it’s what makes this College the strong College it is.

How has SciComm evolved in the past decade?

I used to think of science communication as basically like having a big megaphone. I thought I was good at science communication because my megaphone had really well-designed PowerPoint slides, and I didn’t use jargon, and I returned phone calls to journalists. I was a polite, well-behaved science communicator. Over the years, I realized that me shouting science at people was not actually very effective. I was really inspired by people who were working in the science underlying SciComm that emphasized the degree to which we need to know and understand who we’re speaking to and their values. Why should anyone care about climate change? Where is their home and what food did they eat? Really, it was about being a human and not a robot with a megaphone. All of us that work in SciComm know that there’s always more to learn, but a lot of what we’re learning is communication techniques and part of that is showing up as a whole person and having the confidence and grace to do that.

What is your fondest memory (big or small) of the College?

My favorite memories of the College aren’t distinct little moments. It’s much more about watching the College come together as a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts, particularly over the first couple of years. I remember our first College Council meetings, where we looked around the table and despite the fact that we were all earth and environmental scientists, many people didn’t even know each other because they had been in different parts of the University prior to the formation of the College. They didn’t deeply understand each other’s work, and particularly during the process of working through promotion and tenure packages together, I watched these campus leaders come to appreciate the science that extended beyond their own department’s expertise, and start to form a vision about the power of the College in its totality to address environmental challenges. It was always done with curiosity and goodwill and integrity which are aspects of the scientific enterprise that we often don’t talk about. We talk about the College being built by mass spectrometers and large research ships and all this infrastructure, but it’s the people that make it work and I witnessed people with such deep curiosity and dedication to asking the hard questions that made the College mature into a full-fledged intellectual hub.

Full-fledged intellectual hub? That sounds like a lot to oversee and manage!

The College is, in my opinion, a perfect size with a little over 200 tenure track faculty and 600 staff and 1600 students. I actually know the names of all the faculty members and something about what they do. For our students, once they come into the College, it’s like being in a small liberal arts college embedded in a major research university. We’re big enough to be brawny and expansive and very complete in the way we approach problems but small enough to really be a community. I could not have designed a better size configuration of a College. 

What are your plans for the post-dean life? 

First of all, I’m not retiring. In fact, my family is forbidden from even saying that word that begins with “r”. I’m very excited that I was elected to serve as president-elect of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which is the world’s largest professional society of earth systems science. I’m taking over a leadership role just as we launch a new strategic plan that prioritizes creating bridges between science and policy and action, with diversity and equity at the core of that work. I have always loved working globally and the fact that it is an organization that brings together scientists from around the world is exciting to me. I will also be returning to the faculty. I actually have an office in Anderson Hall, which of course is right next to the building where I did my PhD research, so there’s a wonderful sense of homecoming and returning to the now School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. I want to continue to support our engagement work where the tremendous amount of information that we generate on climate change gets into the hands of the people who are most affected by climate change and who can use it to have a more just and safe future.

Prior to becoming dean, you had an illustrious career in using tree-ring data to understand long-term trends in climate change. Will you be diving back into your research on tree rings?

There’s going to be a tiny bit of it because I will be joining a field crew sampling bristlecone pine trees in the White Mountains. These are some of the world’s oldest living trees and some of the most ancient wood that we find on our landscape, and it tells us some really important information about the way climate has changed not just over the past hundred years or thousand years, but literally over the past 8,000 years. That involves putting a backpack back on, getting into the field, touching some trees, looking in a microscope. But the vast majority of the work I’m going to be doing is seeking to build our partnerships in the communities that can use this information. So, a foot in both worlds. 

What will you miss the most about being Dean?

I will miss the regular contact with faculty, staff and students that are working on science outside of my area of expertise. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that I didn’t know that much about marine science when I got this job, and the faculty in particular were really kind to me in terms of helping me increase my understanding as rapidly as possible to be able to be an effective dean. I will miss that, but I’m sure I can find ways to stay in touch and continue to enjoy and consume the vast productivity of this amazing faculty. 

We are all eagerly waiting for your successor to be named. Do you have any words of advice for them?

Absolutely enjoy this job. It is the best job in higher education. UW is a place that nurtures leadership, the collaboration with senior leaders in the College and among the other deans is so fulfilling, the early career scientists are inspiring, and our students knock my socks off.